Polarized Politics Led To Cantor’s Defeat– and Cochran’s Victory. Why the “Uncommitted Center” Is So Important (Cantor part 2)

Please scroll down for Part 1 of this post. 

When House Majority leader Eric Cantor lost his seat to ultra-conservative David Brat, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus summed up the majority view among political pundits: “The episode offers a disturbing commentary about the poisonous, polarized state of American politics.”  

I cannot agree. I don’t think “polarization” is toxic.  To the contrary, as the poet William Blake once wrote “Without Contraries, No Progress.”  Conflict can clarify issues, and help us move forward.  Indeed, the clash of opinions is a time-honored way of testing their validity.

Do you remember the 1990s, a decade when it became difficult to tell the difference between Democrats and Republicans? While Republicans headed toward the far right, Democrats moved right of center. During his second term, Bill Clinton started to sound all too much like Ronald Reagan, as he set out to “reform welfare,” forcing single mothers to go to work, even though we weren’t offering them affordable day care. After leaving the White House, Clinton reclaimed his position as a stand-up liberal, but at the time, the distinction between Democrats and Republicans was badly blurred.

Today, the difference between the two parties is clear.  I wouldn’t say that Democrats are ultra-liberal, but conservatives have moved so far to the right that Democrats had no choice but to take a stand on critical issues including: global warming, gun control, the need to raise the minimum wage, and universal access to health care.

By contrast, in the 1990s, Congressional Democrats were “lukewarm” on health care reform. As  Paul Starr reports in his newest book, Remedy and Reaction, Senate Finance Committee chairman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, actually stood up to say, “We don’t have a health care crisis.”

But by  2010,  the crisis was obvious, and Democrats came together. Pelosi and Harry Reid marshaled the votes, and Congress passed legislation which, while far from perfect, is solidly progressive: Low-income and middle-income Americans receive the subsidies they need; insurers can no longer discriminate against people suffering from pre-existing conditions, and preventive care–including contraception–is free.There is much more work to be done, but at last, we have begun.

Since then, Congressional Democrats have not had the votes to pass much-needed legislation in other areas.

But at least President Obama is no longer the compulsive compromiser that he appeared to be during his first term in office. I see this as progress.  As I have argued in the past, on some issues compromise is not an option.  Too much is at stake. 

On the ground,voters are as divided as their elected representatives.  Politically active Democrats have begun to move  left of center while Republican voters have become more conservative. The Pew Research report that I discussed in the first part of this post reveals that a decade ago, only 10% of politically engaged Republicans took a conservative stance on almost all issues. Today, 33% express consistently conservative views. At the other end of the political spectrum, almost forty  percent of committed Democrats are consistent liberals, up from just 8% in 1994. The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or constantly liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. .

“As a result,” Pew reports, “ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished. “Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”. 

“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”

                                 Is Polarization A Threat to the Nation?

Most pundits are appalled.
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Cantor’s Defeat—What It Does Not Mean– Part 1

Shocked by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in last week’s Virginia primary, many in the media have decided that this “earthquake” has re-shaped the political landscape.

Immigration reform is dead, they say, and tea party radicals are far stronger than many suspected.

Meanwhile, the alarmists warn, political polarization has divided the country, poisoning our democracy. On that last point they are half-right; Republican voters have moved to the far right, while politically active Democrats are beginning to shift toward the left.

But polarization is not necessarily a threat to the Republic.  Pointed debate can clarify the issues– and underline what is at stake, raising voter awareness. Conservatives are making it clear what they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of their ideology, and mainstream Americans are becoming alarmed. For example, David Brat, the far-right conservative who defeated Eric Cantor, says that he would like to slash social security by 2/3.  This is a statement that could bring out voters who normally would not vote in a mid-term election.

As I will argue in part 2 of this post, at this point, too many mainstream America are not paying attention to the issues. “I’m just not interested in politics,” they say. Or, “I’ve given up on politicians.” A democracy needs a passionate, engaged electorate. Indifference is what will poison the Republic.

Cantor’s Loss Does Not mean that “Immigration Reform is Dead”

The conventional wisdom says that, until recently, President Obama had been waiting for the House to act on immigration reform. Supposedly, Eric Cantor, the House Majority leader, was open to some sort of compromise on an overhaul of immigration law, and this is why he lost the primary.

Not so fast.

First, this is not all up to the House. Obama could use his executive authority to limit deportations.

Speaking at a fundraiser the day after the primary, President Obama said: “It’s interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts and some of the conventional wisdom talks about how the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now. I fundamentally reject that.” 

An Army of Refugee Children Flood Our Borders–What Should We Do?

Even as the president spoke, thousands of children from Central America continued to surge across our border, seeking an escape from the violence and poverty of Central America.

Once minors get into the U.S., they typically turn to immigration agents for protection. Under a  law passed during the George W. Bush administration, children, unlike adults, cannot simply be deported.  They must be turned over to Health and Human Services, and protected while their case is decided. Some will go to court where Legal Aid lawyers will argue that they will be in danger if they return home. Others will be reunited with relatives in the U.S. Some will ultimately be deported–but this could take years.

On Fox Special Report with Bret Baier, political analyst Brit Hume paid tribute to these lone childrens” struggle and their courage: “The immigrant children illegally crossing American borders by the thousands have triggered a logistical, humanitarian and law enforcement crisis to which current US immigration policy has no satisfactory answer.

“It may be tempting to call for their deportation,” he added, “but that ignores an important consideration: what the minor children, most of them unaccompanied by adults, had to go through just to get here.

“Nearly all are from Guatamala, El Salvador and Honduras, three countries plagued by extraordinary levels of drug and gang violence. Honduras now has the highest per capita murder rate in the world.”

“I have seen some of these kids,” Hume told his audience. “A youth home where I serve on the board here in Virginia has taken in dozens of them.  They are remarkable kids from what I have seen of them.  They are well behaved. When meals are served some of them weep at the fact that they’re eating better than their families can back home.  They wait till all are served before they’ll eat. They turn up at prayer services.  . . .  They potentially could make an enormous contribution to this country if we can find a way to house them and care for them and let them stay”. (Hat-tip to Digby for calling attention to Hume’s impassioned speech.)

The flood of young refugees, crossing into this country daily– and overflowing holding centers—casts a spotlight on their plight, making it clear that illegal immigration is not a problem that we can ignore. We just don’t know what to do with these children.

One Boy’s Story

“‘Where I live, parents are obligated to give a son to the gangs,'” Carols, a 17-year-old from Honduras told Bloomberg, while fighting back tears. An uncle who tried to defy the criminals paid with his life.

Another child showed Bloomberg his right hand: before he fled Honduras, a gang had accosted him on the street and amputated the tips of two fingers

“If you want to live, you have to leave your family,” a third 16-year-old confided.

“Carlos’ journey of 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) took about a month by bus and foot,” Bloomberg reports. When he arrived in northern Mexico, just a quarter mile from the border, he  explained that he hasn’t decided whether he’ll try to reach an uncle in Houston clandestinely or voluntarily surrender to border agents.

“’If I do that, they could deport me,” Carlos explained

“That could be fatal,” the reporter observed.
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